“Black Lives Matter.” The phrase has become a rhetorical Rorschach test. Your interpretation of what you hear when you hear the phrase depends on your life experiences. And that interpretation reveals itself in how one would complete the phrase as a sentence. What I hear is “Black Lives Matter as much as anyone else’s.” Not everyone does.
The phrase grew out of collective frustration and grief among African Americans and others at what seemed like a ceaseless cascade of police-involved killings of unarmed black men caught on video over the past two years. In fact, I’d argue that the awakening of this movement began after the killing of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman in 2012. The failure to initially arrest Zimmerman and the failure to indict some of the law enforcement officers involved in these incidents despite video in some cases added to the overwhelming sense that black lives didn’t matter. At all.
The backlash was almost immediate. “Blue Lives Matter” rolled off the tongues of supporters of police officers. “All Lives Matter” also became a part of the conversation. Instead of contributing to the dialogue, the phrase was often heard by African Americans as a way to dismiss, belittle or ignore the fears and concerns of African Americans that actually went back generations.
Some who invoked “All Lives Matter” were well-meaning. After protesters shouted “Black Lives Matter” as Martin O’Malley spoke at a conference last July, the former Maryland governor and Democratic presidential candidate said, “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.” That didn’t go over well. Nor did it when Hillary Clinton used the phrase in talking about her mother. “I asked her, ‘What kept you going?’ Her answer was very simple,” Clinton said at a black church in Missouri last June. “Kindness along the way from someone who believed she mattered. All lives matter.”
O’Malley apologized, which got him branded “weak” by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
How can you apologize when you say black lives matter — which is true — white lives matter, which is true — all lives [matter] — which is true. And then they get angry because you said white and all…we don’t want you to mention that. What’s he need to apologize for?
For Trump and other Republicans, to hear “Black Lives Matter” was to hear “Black lives matter more than anyone else’s.” Or “Black lives matter more than the police.” Their response to the pain and anger coming from fellow Americans was breathtakingly unsympathetic and willfully tone-deaf.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee derided protesters as anti-cop “mobs.” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said the movement was part of “lawlessness in this country” and slammed President Obama for supporting it. “He does not support the police, he doesn’t back up the police, he justifies Black Lives Matter,” Christie said last October. Sen. Ted Cruz last October went so far as to say the “Black Lives Matter” movement is “literally suggesting and embracing and celebrating the murder of police officers.”
John Kasich is the governor of Ohio, the site of one of the most horrific incidents that animate Black Lives Matter. Tamir Rice was a 12-year-old playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park when he was shot and killed by police in November 2014. It was also in Cleveland where two unarmed people were fatally killed when police fired on their car 137 times in 2012.
So when Kasich met with The Post’s editorial board, I had one question: When you hear the phrase “Black lives matter,” what do you hear? The initial part of his answer was just right. “Well, what I hear is that there are people that are in this country who think the system not only, not only doesn’t work for them,” he said, “but it works against them, okay?”
Kasich then used his answer to unleash a torrent of information on everything he had done for the African American community in his state. There was the commission to heal the fractured trust between police and people of color. He talked about opening opportunity for entrepreneurship. He talked about efforts to reform the schools and welfare. And he boasted about signing a law to “ban the box” and reducing prison recidivism.
To get the governor back on track I asked what he would say to fellow Republicans who might be upset with what he had to say and who don’t think there is a problem. “What would I say? Tough,” Kasich said.
What struck me as a breath of fresh air was really Kasich being consistent. What he told us was in keeping with what he has been saying for months now. He did invoke “all lives matter” when asked whether a politician should apologize for using the term during a CNN interview last August. It is what he said next that set him apart from the GOP field.
I don’t know about that issue. And all lives do matter. Black lives matter, especially now, because there’s a fear in these communities that, you know, justice isn’t working for them. But it’s about balance. I’m not going to get myself caught in some sort of a wedge. The community has to understand the challenges of police, and the police have to understand the challenges of the community.
There’s something about that “especially now” that reveals a person who heard his constituents and understands their fears and concerns. This is exactly where the Republican Party ought to be in 2016. Working on tough issues and expanding the reach of the GOP while adhering to its conservative principles. A Republican nominee who understands the meaning of “Black Lives Matter” and knows that black lives matter would be formidable in November. But there is no danger of that happening.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj